Bucs likely gambled and lost believing Jameis Winston would grow up

It’s the headline everyone in Tampa feared, yet no one in Tampa could ever rule out: The NFL is investigating an allegation involving Jameis Winston and an unnamed woman.

This was always the risk when the Bucs drafted Winston: their franchise quarterback would make the wrong kinds of headlines as a pro, just as he did in college. This time Winston is alleged to have grabbed an Uber driver in the crotch during a drive-thru stop in the early hours of March 13, 2016. He’s also accused of boorish behavior including “shouting homophobic slurs at pedestrians.”

If it’s true, it’s disgusting and suspension-worthy.

The NFL is investigating Jameis Winston for a potential violation of the league's player conduct policy. (AP)
The NFL is investigating Jameis Winston for a potential violation of the league’s player conduct policy. (AP)

Winston ardently denies any sexual misconduct, saying in a statement: “The story falsely accuses me of making inappropriate contact with this driver. I believe the driver was confused as to the number of passengers in the car and who was sitting next to her. The accusation is false, and given the nature of the allegation and increased awareness and consideration of these types of matters, I am addressing this false report immediately. At the time of the alleged incident, I denied the allegations to Uber, yet they still decided to suspend my account.”

While Winston suggests mistaken identity, the driver told BuzzFeed News there was only one rider in the car. As of this writing, Winston’s camp has not identified any other passengers with him that night.

Even if these allegations are completely false, and Winston did nothing wrong in this case, there’s a problem beyond he-said, she-said. It’s about Winston’s character and whether his immaturity will ever evaporate.

Winston has always had knucklehead tendencies — to put it kindly. He’s the one who jumped up on a table at Florida State and quoted a lewd meme, a questionable move even if he wasn’t under a cloud from sexual assault allegations. (Winston was never charged with a crime, and he settled a civil suit with accuser Erica Kinsman last year.) There were more benign examples as well, like when he posed for a draft night photo with crab legs, even though he was once accused of stealing the seafood from a Florida grocery store. More recently he gave a speech at a local elementary school in which he blurted how girls are “supposed to be silent.”

Even his most supportive fans have often wondered, “What are you thinking?” And although he surely has lots of supporters at One Buc Place, this latest episode seemed to have taken the whole organization by surprise, which is worrisome considering it happened more than a year ago. Did Winston think something like this would just go away? He’s a fool if he did.

Winston’s charisma always seemed to compensate, at least on the field. Florida State teammates loved him to a fault. And when “Famous Jameis” got to the pros, he seemed to take over the Bucs even as a newcomer, praising older vets often and bringing an infectious youthful energy. He stayed out of trouble for two years, the team got better, and his quotable pep talks made for good highlights. When “Hard Knocks” came calling, he drew raves from the producers befitting a master thespian rather than a still-evolving passer.

Jameis Winston denies an allegation that he groped a woman during an Uber ride. (Getty Images)
Jameis Winston denies an allegation that he groped a woman during an Uber ride. (Getty Images)

Yet all of it was out of faith in things unseen. Winston wasn’t given the keys to the franchise to be amusing; he was trusted to be transformative. Lovie Smith was not ushered out because he lost his way; it was because Dirk Koetter was seen as the coach who could help Winston reach that No. 1 potential.

Year 3 was supposed to be that next step, and it has not happened. The team started well and then the New England Patriots came to town for a Thursday night game. Winston had a chance to make his mark against Tom Brady and he struggled. A last-minute drive fizzled at the goal line and the Bucs didn’t seem to bounce back from that. Then came a telling moment in New Orleans, as Winston again tried to rally the troops with a wild speech in which he sucked his fingers and said “That’s a W. Let’s eat one!” It was fodder for derision around the league. Teammates stood behind their leader with quasi-stunned looks on their faces. And the Bucs ended up eating an L.

No one in Tampa has time for antics anymore. The Bucs haven’t been competitive for more than a decade. In that time, all three of their division opponents have been to the Super Bowl, and one has won it. The Bucs have been bad, boring, or both.

It’s not all on Winston, of course. He has dealt with persistent injuries this year, and the Bucs did him a disservice by not bolstering their offensive line or running game. Still, the pressure has always fallen on Winston to grow up already. The Bucs seemed to make up their minds on him early in the vetting process, even though Marcus Mariota was right there as a safer choice. Mariota hasn’t been consistent or healthy either, but his poise was clear immediately, in his first pro game, when he threw four touchdowns against Winston and the Bucs. Nobody in Nashville loses sleep over whether Mariota is going to embarrass the Titans. And Tennessee is now contending for a division title.

Everyone looks for the clichéd “it” factor in a young quarterback: the intangible leadership quality that inspires belief. But the truth is that most starting NFL quarterbacks steer closer to drab than dramatic. From Drew Brees to Matt Ryan to Joe Flacco to Russell Wilson, it’s steadiness that provides the bedrock for winning.

If Winston is guilty of assault, his future as a star football player is rightly in jeopardy. Even if not, it’s still worth wondering if a long-term investment in him is worth the risk.

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